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Me & Polish

April 24, 2013

I hit a personal milestone today in my study of the Polish language: I finished the 30th and final lesson of Pimsleur’s Polish I, which I started, I think, back in early December.  I’ve had a few lazy spells, but generally, I kept at it every day.  It has definitely helped me.  I’m able to pick up on things my students are saying in class, to ask for things in shops, sometimes to make the barest small talk.  I’ve managed to buy a train ticket and to get some medicine in a pharmacy from people who spoke no English, though gesturing is still a big part of my communication.

I’m in no position to compare it it to other systems, but it seemed like a good introductory method for me.  There’s a lot of repetition and the vocabulary is introduced slowly and methodically.  If you’re a quick study, or are familiar with another Slavic language, it might be too slow for you, but it was paced about right for me.  I generally have to listen to a lesson about 3 times before my response rate is good enough to move on to the next one.

Partly, I think that’s a function of my age.  I’ll be 50 this year and I’ve never seriously studied another language.  I know bare conversational Spanish from high school, a bit of sign language from a job, and smatterings of French from listening to chansons.   But I’m basically your typical American monoglot.  Unpleasant as it is to acknowledge, the ability to acquire a new language definitely drops off as we age.  It just takes a ton of raw processing power, juice that I need these days to find my keys.

(UWAGA: Some of the things I will say hereafter about the Polish language will almost certainly be wrong.  Please excuse my ignorance.  I mean no offense.)

And then, too, Polish is not easy for English speakers.  For me, most of the words are not all that hard to pronounce, (though there are a few real stinkers), it’s that they’re so hard to remember.  Take the word przyjechałem. (How I, as a man would say I arrive.)  You say it something like p(r)-shuy-uh-HOW-em.  (I put the r in parentheses because it’s almost inaudible.)  I was able to repeat it the first time I heard it.  But something about it makes it very hard to remember, probably that it’s a combination of syllables that just wouldn’t occur in English.  I listened to that lesson three times before I was able to produce it as a response, meaning it took me 10 or 15 tries to recall and say it in an appropriate context, even a very structured one.  Other words, like osiem, (pr: OH-shem; eight), I got the first time and never forgot.  It’s not so different-sounding from an English or Spanish word.

And then we have the practice of changing the words all around all the time, technically known as declension (nouns), inflection (adjectives), conjugation (verbs), and a whole bunch of other stuff based on gender, time, who you’re talking to… whether you’re wearing a hat? I don’t know.  A Polish dictionary, by itself, is not much use, because knowing the basic form of a word doesn’t allow you to use it.  Only toward the end of the Pimsleur lessons were many of these changes introduced.  You just have to build some basic vocabulary and learn to parrot some common phrases first, I guess.

So where I’m at now, is that I have a vocabulary of maybe 1000 words.  I’m able to make a few changes based on gender and tense, but generally I get that wrong with every fragmentary sentence I speak.  I recognize a lot of words but I can’t make sense of sentences.  Sitting in the pub the other night, listening to people speak, I wrote down every word or phrase I understood, over the course of about 10 minutes.  (Some of them came from the TV.)  Here’s what I caught:

moja (my)
ja mam (I have)
nie mam (I don’t have)
co (what)
masz (you have)
dziękuje (thank you)
bardzo (very)
dobry (good)
ale (but)
robić (do)
jeszcze (still)
ale to nie (but it’s not)
lubi (likes)
przyjaciół (friends)
siedemdziesiąt (seventy)
na razie (a common phrase with several meanings)
sto złoty (one hundred zlotys)
smacznego (bon appetit)
czasu (time)
jego (its)

…and that’s it. I had no idea what they’re talking about. I felt kind of like a dog, listening to the humans talk.

“Blah blah blah blah blah SPOT blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah WALK blah blah blah blah.”

If you ask me a question, all I can tell you is “SPOT WALK YES WALK YES SPOT YES WALK.”  Still, a talking dog is pretty cool, right?

So what’s next?  One thing I know about myself is that I do best with some structure.  Having all those lessons to do, in order, was really good for me. So I need to have a plan.

The next phase of my campaign will be two-pronged.

First, I’m going to review all 30 Pimsleur lessons, completing and correcting my written notes and creating vocabulary flashcards for words that give me trouble.

Second, I’m going to alternate that with going through the materials we use at our sister school in Rybnik, starting at the very beginning.  This material was developed by Scott & Paul (my bosses) specifically to teach English to Poles, and it has Polish translations.  This will help me fill in the holes  in my basic vocabulary and will also aid in my teaching.

There are a million other resources out there and my buddy Stuart is a fantastic resource for locating and evaluating them.  (He turned me onto the Pimsleur lessons.) So after this is done, I’ll plot the next leg.  I need to get my Polish into some kind of rough operability as soon as I can, for many reasons.  Basically because I’m living in Poland, duh.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 24, 2013 12:43 pm

    A talking dog is very cool. Brave THAT ! I like that the teaching + learning goes in a circular pattern of unfoldment between you + everybody there.

    • April 24, 2013 1:01 pm

      Ooh, that’s a nice way to put it. Yeah, I’m here to teach and to learn in equal measure. Although it seems to me like I got the better end of the deal.

  2. April 24, 2013 2:09 pm

    Hang in there, my good man. I’m sure you will polish your Polish.

  3. norbertbeaver permalink
    April 26, 2013 12:15 pm

    Man, why can’t they just speak English like the rest of us? :oD

    I’ve tried and failed to learn French, Dutch and German in my life, and they’re considered the easy ones. Your progress is very impressive, and I’m sure that in time you’ll get the hang of it. As for me – if I ever see a dog jump onto a table I’ll know how to accurately describe it to any passing Germans, but I doubt that I’ll ever be able to actually communicate properly without an interpreter.

    • April 27, 2013 10:14 am

      I think that learning a language is so difficult that one has to have a very strong motivation to stick with it. I’m genuinely in awe of my students who keep coming back, week after week, plugging away. I would never have made even this much progress and would probably have given up long ago if I weren’t immersed and didn’t need it to survive. Hell, I lived in Texas for 45 years and barely spoke any Spanish.

      Music is a language, one we both had a strong enough motivation to become fluent in. It takes us to countries we could otherwise never have visited.

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